Joseph Matheatau, has just arrived at work in Worcester – a town in South Africa’s Western Cape.
He works at Blindiana Barista, a coffee shop that employs blind and partially sighted staff as part of programme run by Kaleidoscope – a non-profit organisation that trains and empowers the blind.
Joseph, who has made a name for himself as South Africa’s first qualified blind barista was not born this way. His eyesight started to deteriorate when he was about three years old because of glaucoma – an eye condition that damages the eye’s optic nerve and gets worse over time. He eventually lost his sight completely in 2010.
Joseph trained as a barista at an exclusive coffee shop in town and later landed a job at Blindiana in 2014.
He says with practice he has been able to master the art of making great coffee.
The barista relies on his heightened senses and is able to grind, brew and serve up a cup with ease and without spilling a drop.
“I came here in 2014, in Worcester to pursue my studies as I was struggling throughout the year to finish my matric (grade 12) and stuff like that because of the poor eyesight. So, it started in 2014 and when it started actually because it’s something that I liked, making hot coffees and teas and stuff like that. So it started right there so, it’s something that I do it from my heart. And I feel comfortable when I’m making coffee and this is why I’m still making coffee, even today,” said Joseph.
Worcester is located in the country’s southern tip and the biggest wine producing region. It attracts thousands of tourists who want to experience its scenic landscapes and tour its vineyards.
Blindiana Barista targets visitors to the town offering them the coffee shop’s custom roast coffee blend and tours of products made by blind people in the country, like furniture and crafts.
About 97 percent of the blind and partially sighted people in South Africa are unemployed according to the country’s national council for the blind. Most don’t have access to specialized training and find it difficult to get employed.
Joseph says it has been a long journey for him but he decided he would not let his disability stand in the way of a productive life.
“It was a bit challenging when I started because it’s extremely hot water. Apart from that, when you froth the milk, you can’t see the milk – what is going on, especially when you make lattes and cappuccinos. But I had to listen to what you call ‘paper-tearing’ sound and concentrate and I can tell if the milk its right or it’s not fresh. I also by listening by sounds, I can identify the milk if it’s not right it’s not fresh enough or it’s too sour or something like that, or it’s not the right milk for cappuccinos, so it was really challenging. But because of the practice and doing what I’m doing, my senses work perfect and they actually… alert me if something’s wrong with the grinder, something wrong with the machine or probably something wrong with the milk I’m frothing for cappuccinos or lattes,” the barista said.
“It was a very long road and it was a lot of trial and error but in the end we made it through and I think it’s also because of Joseph’s persistence and Joseph wanted to do this and he was very glad to be trained as a barista. So it was a long path, now Joseph is working full time in our coffee shop,” said Kaleidoscope Programme Co-ordinator, Ledivia Hamma.
Barista, Groove Mhianga trained and worked with Joseph.
“It’s strange and its rare to find someone who is blind who can be a barista and end up working with customers and stuff like that and the talent that he has I mean its so amazing you know, he is such a skilful barista the fact that he is blind you know, so its rare to find something like that anywhere so I really respect what he is doing and the fact that he now knows how to make coffee and he listens with his ear to get the whole technique of making coffee, it’s so amazing, I respect that,” said Mhianga.
Joseph is working on plans to open his own cafe in future, where he hopes his family members will be regular consumers of good coffee and he can build his name as one of the best baristas in the country.
He also says he wants his experience to inspire others like him to overcome limitations of disability and focus on pursuing career goals.